To determine trends in the microbial etiology of nosocomial infections in the 1980s, surveillance data on the microbiology of documented nosocomial infection reported to the National Nosocomial Infections Surveillance System and from the University of Michigan Hospital were analyzed. Antimicrobial susceptibility data on selected pathogens from both sources were also reviewed. Overall, Escherichia coli decreased from 23% of infections in 1980 to 16% in 1986-1989, Klebsiella pneumoniae dropped from 7% to 5%, whereas coagulase negative staphylococci increased from 4% to 9% and Candida albicans increased from 2% to 5%. Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterobacter species and enterococci had minor increases, but antimicrobial resistant strains for these pathogens as well as coagulase-negative staphylococci were seen more frequently. In contrast to the 1970s, major shifts in the etiology of nosocomial infection have occurred in the decade of the 1980s. Taken as a whole, the shifts are away from more easily treated pathogens toward more resistant pathogens with fewer options for therapy. These shifts underscore the continued need for prevention and control to accompany new developments in therapy.